Biden to visit Florida as toll from Hurricane Ian rises to 44

The death toll from Hurricane Ian, one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the United States, has climbed above 40 as the White House said President Joe Biden will head to Florida later in the week to survey the devastation.

Shocked Florida communities were only just beginning to face the full scale of the destruction on Saturday, with rescuers still searching for survivors in submerged neighbourhoods and along the state’s southwest coast.

Homes, restaurants and businesses were ripped apart when Ian roared ashore as a powerful Category 4 hurricane on Wednesday.

The confirmed number of storm-related deaths rose to 44 statewide, the Florida Medical Examiners Commission said late on Saturday, but reports of additional fatalities were still emerging county by county – pointing to a far higher final toll.

Hard-hit Lee County alone recorded 35 deaths, according to its sheriff, while US media including NBC and CBS tallied more than 70 deaths either directly or indirectly related to the storm.

In the coastal state of North Carolina, the governor’s office confirmed four deaths related to Ian there.

Biden and his wife, Jill, will visit Florida on Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre tweeted, but the couple will first head to Puerto Rico on Monday to survey the destruction from a different storm, Hurricane Fiona, which struck the US territory last month.

In Florida’s Lee County on Saturday, rescuers and citizens in boats were still saving the last trapped inhabitants of the small island of Matlacha. Debris, abandoned vehicles, and downed trees littered the pummeled hamlet’s main street and surroundings.

The community, home to about 800 people, was cut off from the mainland following damage to two bridges, and those who fled early were only just beginning to return home to survey the destruction.

Sitting in the shadow of a deserted Matlacha house, Chip Farrar told the AFP news agency that “nobody’s telling us what to do, nobody’s telling us where to go”.

“The evacuation orders came in very late,” the 43-year-old said. “But most people that are still here wouldn’t have left anyway. It’s a very blue-collar place. And most people don’t have anywhere to go, which is the biggest issue.”

Sixteen asylum seekers were missing from a boat that sank during the hurricane, according to the US Coast Guard. Two people were found dead and nine others rescued, including four Cuban nationals who swam to shore in the Florida Keys.

More than 900,000 customers remained without power in Florida Saturday night, hampering efforts by those who evacuated to return to their homes to take stock of what they lost.